Notes by TŌN violinist Sophia Bernitz
Written in the summer of 1898 while staying in a Bavarian mountain resort, Ein Heldenleben depicts a hero conquering his enemies. Strauss was convinced that Beethoven’s great “Eroica” (Heroic) Symphony was underperformed, and that it was his job to eradicate this injustice with his own homage to “Eroica.” “Thus to fulfill a pressing need I am composing a largish tone poem entitled Ein Heldenleben, admittedly without a funeral march, but nonetheless in E-flat major, with lots of horns—which is always a measure of heroism,” he wrote.
The work is made up of six movements played without interruption. In “The Hero” the E-flat major theme ranges upwards of five octaves. “The Hero’s Adversaries” are signaled by a very sarcastic flute melody. “The Hero’s Companion” is a substantial portrait between solo violin and the orchestra. I will be playing the solo violin part, which is a portrayal of Strauss’ wife, Pauline Maria de Ahna. She is a complex woman with many sides to her—“never twice the same,” as Strauss said. “The Hero’s Deeds of War” is the climax of the work. It uses eight horns, three offstage trumpets, and a significant amount of percussion. “The Hero’s Works of Peace” is where the hero shows off his “accomplishments” by presenting themes from eight of his other great works, most famously Don Juan, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks, Don Quixote, and Death and Transfiguration. If you are familiar with any of these works, it is fun to try to find them! And finally, in “The Hero’s Retirement,” the motive from the second section returns with a ferocious episode, followed by a calming theme in the English Horn. This leads into the peaceful ending, where the violin solo and the home key of E-flat major return, signifying the Hero’s completion and fulfillment.
After its premiere, some called Ein Heldenleben “revolutionary in every sense of the word,” while others thought it was far too egotistical. In later years, Strauss denied that he was the hero depicted in this work. However, it is fairly obvious that that is a falsehood. Nonetheless, it is one of the most challenging and fulfilling pieces in the orchestral repertoire to this day. This is my first time playing it, and I am so fortunate to be able to portray Pauline’s wild personality for all of you, along with the rest of this great work with my colleagues.